Friday, December 2, 2011

What's in a Name? Myanmar or Burma?

What's in a name? When it comes to Burma - or is it Myanmar? - plenty. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton discovered this on her visit to the long-isolated Southeast Asian nation, where what name you use indicates what your politics are or even what ethnic group you come from.

I, too, found this out when I ventured there a decade back in search of a travel story. I wasn't supposed to go, following the argument that tourism gives the corrupt government more revenue, while travel sanctions would weaken the regime. But the regime simply cut deals with neighboring powerhouse China and took in even more money that way. With tourism, at least some money makes its way to local working folk. When I was there, they averaged $1 USD per person per day in income. So, I went.

Burma is the older name. Myanmar is the name the ruling military junta, in power since the early 1960s, gave the country maybe 20 years ago. That makes it bad, right? My former newspaper, the San Francisco Examiner, was among a number of Western media outlets whose editors thought so. The Examiner style gurus refused to use Myanmar, so my every reference in the travel section cover story I wrote after my trip was struck and changed to Burma for publication.

But things are not as simple as that. Burma is a name bestowed on the country by British colonial rulers. The Burmese are the largest ethnic group, but there are minorities fighting border wars with the authorities of long duration. Calling the country Burma is like saying most people in the United States are Caucasian so the country should be called the United States of Caucasia. Problem: It's not inclusive.

People who object to Myanmar do so because they don't think the junta should be free to rename - or rebrand, in marketing-speak - the country. But Myanma, without the R, was the name of a bygone kingdom in the vincinity; it refers to a place, not a group, and its use is more progressive than the name it replaced, despite the rotten reputation of the junta - which may be liberalizing at long last.

So, I'm sticking with Myanmar - even as I lament the name-change from the lovely Rangoon to the rather flat-sounding Yangon for the country's largest city. Happily, the city of Mandalay is still called Mandalay.

BTW, when I asked English-speaking locals in Yangon/Rangoon and Mandalay how the name of the country is pronounced, they told me the final R is silent. Imagine a southern American drawl, then say ''ME 'n ma,'' and you've pretty much got it.

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